I know the issue of political spying -- and not just because my lawful, nonviolent activism got me spied on by local, state and federal "intelligence" agencies (whose spy files on me were unearthed through successful lawsuits and partly successful Freedom of Information requests). I also spent a dozen years as a journalist, researcher and ACLU lawyer investigating the spies.
There are four basic truths of political spying worth remembering in light of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's disclosures about phone record and Internet surveillance. These truths were obvious before computerized spying -- e.g. when the FBI's massive 1960s spy program led to harassment and violence against civil rights and antiwar activists -- and are more obvious, and perhaps more dangerous, now that digitized information on millions of us can be so easily vacuumed up.
1) False "facts" and assumptions CIRCULATE WILDLY.
2) Political spying RARELY STAYS ON TARGET; spies tend to wander.
3) Political "intelligence" is often the OPPOSITE OF ACTUAL INTELLIGENCE.
4) Big Brother has flourished under BOTH PARTIES.
FALSE FACTS GONE WILD
As a teenager in Detroit, I borrowed my dad's car to attend totally lawful gatherings sponsored by groups like People Against Racism (PAR) and Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) -- while agents of the Michigan State Police "Red Squad" hid outside and diligently recorded license plate numbers. Stacking false assumption upon false assumption, the bumbling spies linked my dad -- a non-political businessman -- to revolutionary communists. It was totally bogus as to him and me. Meet Sol Cohen, subversive file No. 358-552-619.
We received Sol Cohen's file in 1983 thanks to a successful First Amendment suit revealing that the "intelligence" unit had accumulated files on 38,000 Michigan residents -- including progressive politicians, consumer activists, union leaders -- with not one indicted for a crime. (This wasteful surveillance occurred while Detroit's violent crime rate was soaring.)
What's worse than all the inaccuracies compiled on these thousands of law-abiding people -- the Michigan ACLU found countless examples of guilt by (parking lot) association -- is how far they can circulate. My dad's file showed that spy units in Canada were linking him to PAR and VVAW, two groups he'd never heard of.